An eloquent silence: The value of wordless narratives

Dr Cathy Sly investigates the significance of wordless graphic novels and picture books, and offers practical suggestions for exploring these silent narratives with students.

In his introduction to David A. Beronä’s ‘Wordless Books’, comics artist Peter Kuper claims, ‘We humans have been using drawings to tell stories as far back as when our ancestors called caves home’ (2008, p 7). Kuper goes on to argue, ‘Wordless picture stories have a unique and especially intimate relationship to their reader’ (2008, p 7). This article explores the merits of graphic novels and picture books that have been referred to as wordless, almost wordless, silent, mute, visual stories, or pictorial narratives. In other words, books in which a story is told almost exclusively through images.

Apart from the aesthetic qualities of wordless narratives, researchers have identified significant pedagogical assets associated with this medium of production. They postulate that books without words can activate the imagination, energise inferential reasoning, cross language barriers, and evoke affective responses. It is a mode of storytelling that conspicuously calls for co-authoring by a reader. Anna Gibbs argues, ‘… experimental studies … have found that humans react physiologically to images faster than we can cognitively process and make sense of them’ (2011, p 252). Thus, the visual narrative is a powerful means of communicating the nuances of characters and their emotional states. Similarly, Suzanne Keen suggests that ‘[t]he art of the comic book can freeze … expressions in close-up frames that arrest time and enhance recognition of the subject’s feelings’ (2011, p 146). Whether human, posthuman or animal; whether photorealistic, cartoonish or abstract, picture book characters readily elicit feelings from a reader.

The significance of silence

Before moving on to consider how to analyse ‘silent’ texts, it is worth briefly contemplating the notion of ‘silence’, which often subsumes symbolic meaning in the ‘wordless’ narrative. Apart from people who are unable to speak, there are other factors that cause people to be temporarily ‘silent’ or ‘lost for words’. Silence may be positive as in the case of excessive joy, meditative or spiritual contemplation, as a means of honour or respect, or in empathic unity with another person. On the other hand, silence can result from distressing situations such as grief, trauma, fear, powerlessness, resistance, or disrespect. Phrases such as: ‘I was speechless’, ‘it was beyond words’, ‘words could not describe’, or ‘they were dumbstruck’ are not unusual in our verbal interchanges. When reading and studying wordless narratives, it is important to ask how and why the omission of a verbal track is important to the particular story. For instance, in Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ there is the silence of trauma and alienation, as well as a silence resulting from people not having a shared language. In ‘The Only Child’ by Guojing, silence conveys the loneliness of a very young child who is left on his own while his parents go to work. When charged with symbolic meaning, it can be argued that silence itself is eloquent. The best wordless narratives powerfully articulate issues and feelings while verbalisation lies dormant below the surface of the visual manifestations.

Graphic novel or picture book?

‘Graphic novels are both like and not like picture books, … while they are similarly visual narratives, they are nevertheless distinctive and different forms …’ (Mallan, 2014, p 1). Without the conventional balloonics used in comics-style narratives, the boundary between wordless ‘graphic novels’ and ‘picture books’ can be particularly porous and requires some flexibility in classification. For instance, ‘The Snowman’ (1978) by Raymond Briggs was considered to be a wordless picture book when published in the 1970s, but in today’s context it could also be referred to as a graphic novel, because the story is told predominantly through a series of sequential panels. Similarly, contemporary picture book author, Shaun Tan, discovered himself to have become an ‘accidental graphic novelist’ (2011) because of his extensive use of sequential panels in ‘The Arrival’.

For a wordless book to be a graphic novel it requires the layout of images to follow the comics-style convention of being predominantly in sequential panels. The panels sit within a ‘grid’ on a page, with ‘gutters’ between them. This convention encodes transitions in time, place and/or perspective. Thus, the grid layout and framing of the panels contribute to meaning, as do their shape, size and placement on the page.

There are instances where picture book creators incorporate sequential panel pages in their layout, as does Marla Frazee in ‘The Farmer and the Clown’ and David Wiesner in ‘Flotsam’. Conversely, graphic novelists sometimes include picture book style ‘splash’ pages in the form of full- or double- page spreads, as is the case in ‘Robot Dreams’ by Sara Varon or ‘The Only Child’ by Guojing. Splash pages operate as a longer punctuation point in the rhythm of the narrative. They require a reader to pause and think about what has led to this point and consider what is to come.

Reading and meaning making with silent narratives

In order to comprehend, critique and share ideas about visual stories, teachers and students should be familiar with the relevant navigation skills, elements of visual literacy, and the associated metalanguage. For the purpose of explicit teaching or revision of these techniques and conventions, the resources below offer an overview of the main features to consider when interrogating visual images:

Suggested steps for reading visual narratives

It is best to read and enjoy a wordless narrative individually for the first reading, then later to share personal perceptions with a partner or group. However, in the classroom situation, individual reading of the same title in hardcopy is not always possible. YouTube videos of silent stories could be used for a class group. The ones with a musical backing rather than a person telling their version of the story are a better choice. However, for a more authentic reading, the video of the book should be shown with the background music (or speaking voice) muted so students can focus solely on the silent images and perceive the story in their own way.

First reading

‘Read’ the book at your own pace. Get a feel for the story. Questions that might be considered initially include:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where/when is the story set?
  • Generally, what is the story about?
  • How does the story make you feel? Why?

Second reading

Reread the book at a slower pace, focusing on particular details. The following questions could guide this reading:

  • Like works of art, wordless books usually have a verbal title. What does the title tell a reader about the book?
  • Does the setting (place or time) change in the course of the story? How and why?
  • What is the main mood or atmosphere in the story? What techniques does the illustrator use to convey this?
  • How does the colour scheme enhance the story?

Third reading

Reread the book with more detailed questions in mind. For example:

  • In what ways are the characters important to the delivery of the story?
  • Select one character to follow closely. Can you explain the role of this character in the story? Does the character change? How and why?
  • What themes or ideas are conveyed through the narrative?
  • Are there any important symbols? If so, what are they, what do they mean, and how do they enhance the story?
  • Are there any sections of the story that you think work better visually than they would if conveyed in writing? Which? Why?
  • Select a segment from the story and retell it orally, in written prose, or by using speech or thought balloons and caption boxes, where appropriate, like a graphic novel with written text.

Subsequent readings

Revisiting wordless books over time often brings surprises, as our understanding and experiences develop, stimulating different perspectives.

Modelling a close reading of an extract from a silent narrative

By way of example, I will focus on two pages from the well-known picture book ‘Flotsam’ by David Wiesner. This highly acclaimed picture book is about a boy spending time on the seashore and investigating the marine creatures he finds there. An old box camera washes in on the tide and this gives the boy something even more intriguing to examine.

Although it would be better to have a copy of the book, a digitised version of ‘Flotsam’ can be useful. The two pages selected here exhibit elements of a wordless picture book. They also include a panelled layout that requires the tying together of sequential panels and making inferences in the gutters between the panels, which is more typical of a graphic novel. Thus, an analysis of these pages can serve as a model for interrogating either picture books or graphic novels. Terminology related to critiquing visual media is noted in bold font.

Double page spread from Flotsam, showing a boy examining a mysterious old camera which has washed up on the beach
Image: Extract from ‘Flotsam’ by David Wiesner (2008. New York: Houghton Mifflin)

The focal point of this double page spread is the close-up of the old box camera in the hands of the boy. We infer that the hands are those of the boy because of the inserted panel to the left, in which the boy is holding the camera. The style of the camera symbolises a connection with the past, which becomes significant later in the story. Ornate writing on the front of the camera suggests a brand name, ‘Melville underwater camera’. Melville is an intertextual clue to the 19th century author Herman Melville, famed for stories about the sea, notably ‘Moby Dick’.

On the opposite page is a grid of seven various sized panels. Firstly, a horizontal panel provides an extreme longshot of the boy standing at the water’s edge holding the camera. Although he is centrally placed, he is small in relation to the vastness of the natural surroundings. Through an action-to-action transition, the next panel shows the boy running up the beach with his find. It locates the reader’s point of view to behind the boy’s parents. Again, the boy is centrally located clutching the camera as he runs towards his parents waving. His gesture suggests anticipation or excitement. The third panel zooms in on the boy showing his find to his parents. Their expressions convey interest and curiosity. The following panel, created through a scene-to-scene transition, requires more from a reader in terms of inference. It appears the boy has been prompted to show his find to the beach lifeguard. Supported by his parents, the boy presents the camera to this ‘authority figure’ on the beach. Given the final three panels, it seems the boy has been given permission to keep the camera, which he investigates closely and discovers it has a film inside.

Apart from the obvious messages in these two pages, other clues enhance the narrative. For instance, the cool colour scheme of blue, aqua, grey, off-white, black and yellow ochre, provide a sensory portrayal of the seaside atmosphere. As a piece of technical equipment, the camera stands in direct contrast to the natural environment. Bodily gestures and facial expressions convey feelings and possible verbal interchanges. Smaller details carry symbolic meaning. For example, the barnacles on the camera, its style and its name suggest that this piece of flotsam is old. The film canister within the camera is certainly predigital. All of these clues, and no doubt many more, assist a reader in making meaning of this wordless tale. The type of silence exhibited in this story is a contemplative silence of a curious boy investigating creatures that live at the seaside and later the flotsam that is washed in by a constantly rolling sea. This short commentary on a brief segment of an acclaimed picture book should serve to demonstrate the richness to be found within the eloquent silence of wordless narratives.

As Silvia Adler argues, a creator may choose to ‘turn off the vocal channel in order to invite the reader to gain understanding through observation and deduction, and … to let symbols and icons ‘talk’ [and] … deliver information on the implicit level’ (Adler, 2011). There are many high-quality wordless picture books and graphic novels that can be enjoyed and pondered. Some of these are listed below.

Wordless picture books

  • Baker, J. (2004). Belonging. London, England: Walker Books.
  • Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. Newtown, Australia: Walker Books.
  • Baker, J. (1991). Window. Newtown, Australia: Walker Books.
  • Banyai, I. (1998). Zoom. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
  • Becker, A. (2013). Journey. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Becker, A. (2014). Quest. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Becker, A. (2016). Return. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Dubuc, M. (2018). The fish and the cat. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Frazee, M. (2014). The farmer and the clown. San Diego: CA: Beach Lane Books.
  • Geisert, A. (2011). Ice. New York, NY: Enchanted Lion Books.
  • Lawson, J. & Smith, S. (2016). Sidewalk flowers. London, England: Walker Books.
  • Lehman, B. (2004). The red book. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Lehman, B. (2011). The secret box. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Oswald, P. (2020). Hike. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Pinkney, J. (2009). The lion and the mouse. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books.
  • Thomson, B. (2010). Chalk. Seattle, WA: Two Lions.
  • Thomson, B. (2013). Fossil. Seattle, WA: Two Lions.
  • Wiesner, D. (1991). Tuesday. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Wiesner, D. (2008). Flotsam. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Zoboli, G. (2017). Professional crocodile. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Wordless graphic novels

(Some of these titles were published as picture books but also fit the criteria for graphic novels.)

  • Briggs, R. (1978). The snowman. London, England: Random House.
  • Chabouté, C. (2017). The park bench. London, England: Faber Faber.
  • Guojing (2015). The only child. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade.
  • Jurevicus, N. (2012). The adventures of Scarygirl. Sydney, Australia: A&U Children's.
  • Lupano, W. & Panaccione, G. (2018). A sea of love. St Louis, MS: Lion Forge.
  • Ma, D. (2015). Leaf. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics.
  • Rogers, G. (2004). The boy, the bear, the baron, and the bard. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
  • Rogers, G. (2007). Midsummer knight. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
  • Rogers, G. (2012). The hero of little street. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin
  • Runton, A. (2004). Owly: vol. 1. The way home & The bittersweet summer. New York, NY: Graphix.
  • Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. Sydney, Australia: Lothian Children’s Books.
  • Varon, S. (2007). Robot dreams. New York, NY: First Second.

References and further reading

Adler, S. (2011). Silence in the graphic novel. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 2278–2285.

Frazee, M. (2014). The farmer and the clown. San Diego: CA: Beach Lane Books.

Gibbs, A. (2011). Affect theory and audience. In V. Nightingale (Ed.), The handbook of media audiences (pp. 251-266). Chicester, England: Blackwell.

Guojing (2015). The only child. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade.

Keen, S. (2011). Fast tracks to narrative empathy. Substance, 40(1), 135-155.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London, England: Routledge.

Kuper, P. (2008). Speechless. In D. A. Beronä, Wordless books: The original graphic novels (pp. 7-9). New York: Abrams.

Mallan, K. (Ed.). (2014). Picture books and beyond. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.

NSW Department of Education & English Teachers’ Association NSW. (2016). English textual concepts.

Sly, C. (2014). Empowering 21st century readers: Integrating graphic novels into primary classrooms. In K. Mallan (Ed.), Picture books and beyond. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.

Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. Sydney, Australia: Lothian Books.

Tan, S. (2011). The accidental graphic novelist. Bookbird: A journal of international children's literature, 49(4), 1-9.

Varon, S. (2007). Robot dreams. New York, NY: First Second.

Visual techniques: Composition and representation. (n.d.).

Representation in picture books: Picture books and graphic novels. (n.d.).

Wiesner, D. (2008). Flotsam. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

How to cite this article – Sly, C. (2020). An eloquent silence: The value of wordless narratives. Scan, 39(7).

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